Something out of Dante’s Inferno, David Grant

Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War 
Mark Derby (ed)
Canterbury University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877257711

For the great bulk of New Zealanders between 1936 and 1939 the Spanish Civil War was like any other civil war; it was not our business – a foreign and faraway interlude between the horrors of WW1 and its successor that would soon follow. At the time internationalists concerned about the potentiality of bigger conflicts arising had their eyes focused rather more on Japanese military expansion in the far east, Italy’s imperialist incursion into Abyssinia and Adolf Hitler’s sudden reoccupation of the Rhineland. In my youth I knew a little about dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco because he ruled Spain for such a long time and in a book I’d seen a reproduction of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting of the bombing of Guernica without really understanding its significance.

That the Spanish Civil War – and New Zealand’s and New Zealanders’ role in it – has since still lingered under the radar of popular knowledge has been rectified with the release of Kiwi Compañeros: New Zealand and the Spanish Civil War edited by Mark Derby. The book comprises a series of papers and other material presented at a very successful Trade Union History Project seminar on 4-5 November 2006 to mark the 70th birthday of a celebrated moment in the war, the march through the centre of Madrid by the first battalion of the International Brigades. There is more to savour in this publication apart from these essays, many of which have been expanded by their authors to provide a fuller account. Much of this has resulted from the diligence of editor Derby who undersells himself, not deliberately, by writing many of the extra entries himself particularly in the first part of the book – biographical sketches of all of the New Zealand combatants and non-combatants who served in the war, all but one on the republican side.

The war was fought between two disparate foes: one defending democracy hard won in 1931; the other wanting a return to feudal ways which meant dictatorship and a downtrodden, class-ridden society. The forces guarding the state encompassed a polyglot variety of Spaniards who barely knew each other – liberal republicans, Catalan nationalists, Socialist Party supporters, Communist Party functionaries, anarchist and Trotskyite militias, and feminist political activists, most of whom formed separate militia columns to defend the republic from the rebellious forces. In flowed a host of overseas defenders to assist them in the fight for the cause: communists, quasi-communists, socialists, adventurers, humanitarians of widely differing hues and a handful of mercenaries.

Opposing them were trained rebel soldiers led by an army elite, rich landowners determined to reverse the republican government’s progressive reforms, and the powerful Roman Catholic Church on whom all of these men depended. It was a brutal internecine conflict with the viciousness hidden from world view and subsequently overshadowed by Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews, Japanese wartime atrocities against all and sundry and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In one of many such examples, Franco’s nationalist forces randomly executed more than 20,000 local inhabitants after they captured the port town of Malaga on Spain’s southern coast in February 1937. The brutality was not restricted to the nationalists. Through 1937, Communist forces battled anarchist militia and forces of the POUM (Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista) – the anti-Stalinist Marxist party – to regain control of the republican stronghold of Catalonia. Death squads on both sides assassinated prominent leaders of the other.

This is a comprehensive account of all New Zealanders, including those who came to live here afterwards, and New Zealand organisations involved in the war. Derby and his co-researchers have left no stone unturned ferreting out every New Zealander who had a connection with the war, no matter how minor. After the recounting of the individual stories, the book moves on to a series of essays which provide the wider context: the attitude of the New Zealand Communist and Labour Parties – the former overtly supporting the republicans and the latter, instinctively sympathetic to them but unwilling to jeopardise its large Catholic constituency – and the somewhat schizophrenic attitude of the Catholic Church to the conflict; the trade unions whose leadership and rank-and-file gave political and financial support to the republic; the Spanish Medical Aid Committee and the other aid agencies, the National Relief Fund for Spanish Children, Quakers, Red Cross and Salvation Army  which not only raised money but were responsible for a remarkably vigorous humanitarian response to assist the war’s victims.

Malcolm McKinnon argues that the New Zealand government’s implicit support for the republican government did not represent the beginnings of an independent foreign policy in itself but one that was seeking to influence Great Britain’s policy towards Spain – unsuccessfully in that it remained strictly non-aligned. Lawrence Jones surveys the New Zealand literati’s response to the conflict and apart from Denis Glover finds it strangely missing, and in an elegant essay Australian historian Judith Keene attempts to unravel the complexities of dealing with the material remains and the psychological and political legacy of Spain’s repressive past. Implicit in the interpretative stories, and identified in part by Derby’s excellent introduction, is the international context.

There seems little more to be added. This publication is surely the authoritative last word on the topic. A few of the individuals’ links with New Zealand, and/or the war, were so tenuous that it is debatable whether they warranted inclusion. Ron Hurd, the Australian merchant seaman who lived briefly in New Zealand after the war, and Gladys Montgomery, an Auckland-based nurse who appears to have worked, very briefly, in an ambulance team early in 1937, are two cases in point.

But this is a very minor quibble. The life stories of those who did participate make for riveting reading. Some are better known than others: Geoffrey Cox, the journalist, who became stuck in Madrid during the initial nationalist siege and survived to write a book about his experiences; Griffith McLaurin, the Auckland university graduate and left-wing Cambridge mathematics don who was killed within a day of reaching the front line; three New Zealand nurses, René Shadbolt, Isobel Dodds and the misplaced Millicent Sharples, who all treated gruesome wounds close to the front where anaesthetic was a luxury; the Cromwell-born battlefield surgeon Doug Jolly who operated for a long period in a cave and who subsequently wrote a medical manual, Field Surgery in Total War which became the handbook for British and American surgeons during WWII; and Tom Spiller, the communist unemployed railway worker who was one of two who survived from a 10-man machine gun unit at Jarama in February 1937 and who later singlehandedly buried 80 International Brigaders in one grave on a single night. Spiller, who described the fighting as “like something out of Dante’s Inferno”, lived to become national president of the Tramways Union and a key target for Robert Muldoon’s “red-baiting” in the 1970s.

There are others who capture your attention. The exotic Greville Texidor, who fought with anarchist militias, and later, under the guidance of Frank Sargeson, turned that experience into a writing career; her husband Werner Droescher, the vigorously anti-Nazi German, who fought in the POUM militia and later taught at Auckland University; Bill Belcher, who survived serving in the anarchist-led Battallón de la Muerte (Battalion of Death) to later sail a yacht single-handedly around the world and settle in Waiheke Island; Eric Griffith, the Wellington flyer and adventurer who later worked in Mexico with movie star Errol Flynn; William MacDonald, the former bank robber from Palmerston North who redeemed himself in the US Abraham Lincoln Battalion at the Battle of Jarama; William Madigan, a one-time asylum patient, who was killed at Ebro in mid-1938; Phillip Cross, the dashing Wellington-born filmmaker who fought for Franco – “because government forces commandeered his trucks and cars from the set of the film” he was making in the southern town of Alcala de los Gazules; and Pedro de Treend, the Basque POUM veteran who survived capture by the dreaded Moors, and whom Derby located after the seminar living in Hawke’s Bay, a spritely octogenarian and retired school teacher.

The book is a pleasure to read. The writing is uniformly accessible and the best articles present thought-provoking and articulate argument. The organisation of the essays works well too. The earlier “people” chapters give an insight into the nature of the war and recount the courage and adventurist spirit of the participants, reading much like boys’-own stories. This is important as adolescents, among others, will respond to them, making the book an ideal medium for “special study” projects for high-school history students. These stories move seamlessly into the interpretative chapters which provide the context and in some cases the answers. I commend Derby for his industry and enthusiasm. A gap in New Zealand’s historiography has been ably rectified.



David Grant’s and Bob Kerr’s Field Punishment No 1: Archibald Baxter, Mark Briggs and New Zealand’s Anti-Militarist Tradition will be reviewed in the next issue.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
Search the archive
Search by category